When the Rhode Island Interscholastic League introduced its open state tournament in the 2010-11 season, it joined select company. While things can change from year to year, the only states in the country with long-running traditions of one state basketball tournament are Kentucky and Delaware. Even Indiana, the site for the ultimate underdog run in the movie “Hoosiers,” went to a class system several years ago.
Rhode Island's tournament has had its growing pains, with different elements in each of its three incarnations and plenty of opinions about how it should be set up. But the general feeling is that the tournament is a good thing – and that it won't be going the way of so many others around the country.
“I don't think it's going anywhere,” said Cranston West head coach Jim Moretti. “There's no perfect way to do it, but I think it generates a lot of excitement, and that's the goal. I think it went well this year.”
The state tournament began as a pilot program in the 2010-11 season. That year, 16 teams qualified based on a slotting system, with a certain number of bids going to each of the state's three divisions. The bids were determined by the regular season, with the only exception for teams that won their division tournaments. That created some issues where teams that performed well in their division tournaments – but didn't win – weren't rewarded with state tournament berths.
In 2011-12, things changed again. The division tournaments were scrapped in favor of a 32-team state tournament. Many coaches around the state wanted the division tournaments back, especially those in the lower divisions.
“As a coaches association, we wanted the divisions back and as long as we got those, we were happy,” Moretti said. “You've got to have the divisions.”
The divisions did indeed return this season, accompanied by a 16-team state tournament and a power-points system to determine bids. Teams were given one point for a Division I win, .8 points for a D-II win and .6 for a D-III win.
Playoff results were included in the standings, and that was a key change.
“I thought that was a good adjustment,” said Hendricken head coach Jamal Gomes. “Two years ago, everything was basically all set before the division tournaments. This year, they mattered a lot more. From our standpoint, that was huge. If we don't beat Cranston East and North Kingstown in the Division I tournament, then we're not in the state tournament.”
While D-I coaches would have liked a few more points for their wins and D-III coaches would have hoped for the same to get closer to an even playing field, the system was generally fair, without the major issues of past years.
“I don't think you'll ever please everybody,” Moretti said. “But I think it worked out well. I think you had a good balance and you got the 16 best teams.”
Classical won the 2013 championship with a thrilling victory over North Kingstown in the finals, capping a wild month of playoff basketball. Both the division tournaments and the state tournament featured upsets galore. Hope won the D-I title, Cumberland captured the crown in D-II and unbeaten North Smithfield won the title in D-III.
Eight D-I teams qualified for the state tournament, with seven D-II teams and one from D-III.
“I think, in the end, you had the 16 best teams,” Gomes said.
In a strange twist, seven of the D-I teams were on the same side of the bracket, but that's not something that can really be addressed.
“That's just the luck of the draw,” Moretti said. “Unless you want to do the slotting like we did the first year, that kind of thing can happen.”
Three Division I teams – Classical, North Kingstown and Hope – made the Final Four, but they were joined by D-III North Smithfield, which continued a trend. In each of the three years of the tournament, a team from outside D-I has made the Final Four. D-II Tiverton nearly won the crown in 2011 and D-II Rogers lost in the semis last year.
One unfortunate byproduct of this year's format was a condensed regular season. It ended in mid-February, and teams played multiple three-game weeks.
“One thing I really didn't like was how cramped the season was,” Gomes said. “It hurt the learning process for the kids. I look at previous years and where my teams were at various points. We didn't get to do nearly as much in practice with this team.”
In a similar vein, teams that did not qualify for the divisional tournaments saw their seasons end well before their counterparts in other sports.
“I think if the Interscholastic League could find a way to expand the season by a week, whether it's at the beginning or the end, that would a make a big difference,” Gomes said. “I think that would be a lot better for the kids and better for basketball in Rhode Island.”
The past evolution of the tournament is evidence that the league listens to such concerns. Everyone involved seems to want to make the tournament better.
The hope is to make it the best it can be.
“In general, I think it's a good thing,” Gomes said. “You have your one team that's the state champion and that's it. When we were winning seven in a row, people always wanted to ask whether we were the best team. Classical was doing big things in D-II. Feinstein had a couple of really talented teams. With a tournament like this, you put all those arguments to rest. The state champion is the state champion, and I think that's a good thing.”